Crafting a New Genre: A Conversation with Jamie Gehring

October 25, 2022 § 4 Comments

Jamie Gehring’s glad her initial pitches got rejected.

Jamie Gehring, author of Madman in the Woods: Life Next Door to the Unabomber

By L.L. Kirchner

I’m not typically into true crime. I prefer relatable memoirs. Then I discovered Jamie Gehring’s new book, Madman in the Woods: Life Next Door to the Unabomber, and found both in one—a relatable memoir about a true crime.

In 1996, Gehring learned the identity of the nation’s longest-running domestic terrorist, Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber. He also happened to be her neighbor, and so her memoir blends personal experience—Kaczynski holding her as a baby and giving her gifts like painted rocks—with original research, including the author’s insights into Kaczynski’s personal correspondence, journals and interviews.

What makes this story accessible is that Gehring resists turning Kaczynski into a caricature. Her family shared meals with their reclusive neighbor, so she knew he didn’t care for her beloved, noisy motorcycle. Still, it’s shocking to read Kaczynski’s writing on the same memory:

“When I see a motorcyclist tearing up the mountain meadows, instead of fretting about how I can get revenge on him safely, I just want to watch the bullet rip through his flesh and I want to kick him in the face when he is dying.”

After meeting Gehring at an author’s conference, I got to ask how she went about researching and writing the book and the grit it took to create a unique genre, the braided crime memoir. Our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

Lisa L. Kirchner, author of the forthcoming BLISSFUL THINKING: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution

LLK: Do you distrust all your neighbors now?

JG: [laughing] I’m still very trusting of people until I have reason not to be.

LLK: What gave you the idea to write this book?

JG: Since he was arrested in 1996, I’ve wanted to tell the story. It’s so unique to us. But I was working full time, raising kids. It wasn’t till my two kids were older that I could. I wrote while my baby napped, or my husband would stay home for the weekend and I’d lock myself in a hotel room and write for 48 hours to get completely immersed in the project.

When I first started writing this six years ago, I thought the book would be short stories. I did my outline and started writing and when I had it almost done, I didn’t feel like it was personal enough.

LLK: What was the model for your book?

JG: There wasn’t one. I wanted to write something completely different. It was a risk because I didn’t understand the market, or what a braided memoir was. I had to learn how to incorporate the interviews, my history, and the journal entries.

A couple of writing coaches were like, “Braided memoir in crime is something that’s just not done. It’s not going to work.” I was like, I think it’s gonna work.

LLK: [Expletive] them!

JG: I’m just glad that when I was initially pitching, I got rejected. Because that wasn’t the story that I wanted to write. Other writers I met said I could pull this off, so I kept writing and recrafting. It finally came together. My agent really helped me hone as well.

LLK: Do you worry about glamorizing serial killers?

JG: I don’t want to glorify this violence or make a hero out of Ted Kaczynski, or to excuse acts of domestic terrorism. But when you’re trying to understand the people around you, I believe it’s important to try to understand their background, their story. The victims were always very present in my mind when I was writing.

I also researched my demographic. True crime is a broad audience, but there are a lot of women interested in true crime. It can give a feeling kind of empowerment, knowing that, though you can’t control the violence around you, you can control what you understand. I wrote with that in the back of my mind too.

If the beginning chapters of my book seem sympathetic toward Kaczynski, that’s honest. Those are my childhood memories. But those views changed. I take readers along as I read and learned about what he was really doing next door.

LLK: How did you stay with this difficult story?

JG: There were times I had to stop and put everything away for a couple of days. I remember reading the journal entries where Ted wrote these methodical, strategic descriptions of what he was going to do, hanging up by the neck, the neck height, type of wire… It was methodical. It was strategic. And it was in our backyard. He It was intentionally trying to kill people. And that wasn’t just people, that included me. Reading that was very difficult.

I had many moments of wanting to throw my laptop in a trash compactor and watch as 50,000 words were transformed into unrecognizable splinters and cubes. I wanted to forget this dream. Not only during the writing process but while pitching to agents and then publishers. 

I made myself take weeks off the project to play with my children, hike, meditate—which I wasn’t very good at—and go to yoga. That way I could digest difficult discoveries and restore my nervous system, before diving back in. 

LLK: What advice would you give writers who feel like their project doesn’t fit a mold?

JG: Trust your gut and your creative vision for a project. You may need to revise a hundred times, but stay true to your goals. Much of the initial advice I received was thrown out by the time I gained confidence as a writer and had the backing of a skilled agent and publisher. 

If you’re new to this industry, find your village. Mine was found in online groups of writers, who are now real-life friends, my agent, writing coach, and my publicist. 

__________________

Jamie Gehring is a Montana native who grew up sharing a backyard with Ted Kaczynski, the man widely known as the Unabomber. She was featured in Netflix’s Unabomber—In His Own Words where she discussed her family’s role in Ted’s capture. Her debut memoir, MADMAN IN THE WOODS: LIFE NEXT DOOR TO THE UNABOMBER (Diversion Books, 2022) has been referenced by Kirkus Reviews as, “A revealing, firsthand addition to the literature of domestic terrorism.” More at her website

L.L. Kirchner is an award-winning screenwriter and author of the forthcoming BLISSFUL THINKING: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution (Motina Press, 2023). Her first memoir, AMERICAN LADY CREATURE, was recently re-released as an ebook. More at her website.

Panic at the Pitch

June 14, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Jodie Sadowsky

“El titulo è Panic at the Bus Stop.” The professore, a balding painter in black jeans, handed out sketchpads and pencils and watercolors.

My heart fluttered with panic at the art studio. I peeked at my classmates deftly sketching in the dusty classroom in Florence a few cobblestoned streets from the Duomo.

In keeping with the assignment, the out of proportion, Picasso-like passengers I created were unnerving. Thankfully, they were waiting for the bus, so I didn’t have to draw an actual bus. 

I slid through that first week, relieved I hadn’t been found out as a complete novice. I dreaded every Thursday, comfortable only during lunch, which I spent with an oily hunk of focaccia. For our independent project, my flatmate sketched stills to stitch together for an animated short of the crucifixion. I picked something more practical: creating a logo for the city’s first Jewish deli. Late one afternoon, the professore leaned over my page, sighed at the cartoonish bagel boy holding a “Ciao! Bagel” banner, then erased everything between the rounds. He hastily redrew the eyes, mouth and hands I’d spent all day fashioning and I mumbled an embarrassed grazie.

By the end of the term, I settled on this: I was creative, but not artistic. So what? I thought, I can’t draw. I was smart and had good ideas. A year later, I headed to law school, a not-so-creative place where lots of people who like to read and write and think end up.

Now, after twenty years of lawyering and many mommy-and-me art classes later, I’m trying to write and publish for the first time. I’m haunted by my old view of myself as someone who is not artistic, and I’m terrified it’s true. 

In writing workshops, I learned about “pitching” the idea of an essay, selling the notion of a piece instead of the work itself. This seems easier to learn—and teach—than the craft of essay writing. It’s an art form with a formula: lead with a catchy or timely headline, compliment the editor’s work or the publication, keep it short and get to the heart of the story.

Sometimes, the formula works. Still, as soon as I celebrate having a pitch accepted, the insecurity takes over. What have I promised? Have I shared a vision for something I can’t possibly pull off? I begin writing, with two rivers surging: one, a happy endorphin stream that celebrates the acceptance (“I’ve got this, it’s working. I’d doing IT!”) alongside a powerful stream of self-doubt (“I’ve fooled them. I’ve sold something I can’t deliver. I’ll be found it.”)

The drafts I’ve held onto the longest, the pieces I’m not submitting or even pitching, are about the ultimate imposter in my life. My biological father played the part of being my dad until I was six. He built a swing set in our backyard, set up a darkroom to print stunning black and white photographs of my sister and me and developed a hilarious repertoire of Sesame Street character impressions for bedtime stories. Then, diagnosed as a sociopath and mixed up with drugs and affairs and bad business dealings, he walked away without looking back. I know his leaving was about him, not me, and that my life turned out beautiful without him, but there’s an ugly undercurrent that doesn’t wane: I wasn’t enough

After one essay I wrote was approved on a pitch, it took three months of slow correspondence and several rounds of edits to publish, each pause opening space for me to question my worth. The day the piece published I couldn’t look at it. I was certain I must have bamboozled the editor, that she felt bad I’d tried so hard and buried it on the website somewhere as a bit of charity. But there it was, under the Personal Essay banner, with a custom illustration to match. And there it was in the newsletter and on social media.  

Soon, I shared it too. Writing—and putting my work out there—is an act of fortifying myself. I’m building a dam against those negative thoughts. I notice them, and given the endless articles a new writer can read on imposter syndrome (I liked this and this), I’m beginning to accept that this insecurity may never dissipate. I work through the edits (and the panic), opening myself to critique, to tracked changes and the abrasive rub of erasers. I’ve given up charcoal and watercolor, but I’m painting my thoughts into words, revealing myself, hoping each time that they are enough, and on my way to believing that finally, I’m enough.  

Jodie Sadowsky lives in Connecticut with her high school prom-date husband and their three children. Jodie’s writing centers around her life’s biggest roles–daughter, sister, mother, partner, friend. Some of her work has been published online at The Kitchn, Tablet, and Cottage Life Magazine; the rest exists on her laptop, her notebooks and in her head. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.

Don’t Blow Up Your Life For A Byline

May 19, 2020 § 11 Comments

A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT By Estelle Erasmus

As a widely published writing coachNYU writing professor, and  assigning editor, my current and former students have been sending me pitches, op-eds and essays about why they are “breaking the rules of quarantine.” Sometimes they offer the justification that they have health, mental or emotional issues, and that’s why the rules shouldn’t apply…not to them.

In the midst of this crisis, it’s not the time for writers to grasp for splashy pieces founded on flaunting their ethical failures or illegal methods to sell their memoirs or build their platform. It will backfire.

As a writing teacher, a big part of what I do is save people from their worst instincts on what stories need to be told and how they need to tell it.

Students share their darkest moments with me and I help them craft their pain into stories that are published in top tier publications. I believe that care is a key reason I have been entrusted with training teens in journalism in NYU’s summer program. 

What I don’t do is encourage them to exploit their pain to get a quick clip. Let me break it down for you:

We tell our kids with social media that once it’s up, it’s out there forever. So let’s take a slice of our own advice. If you broke the law, faced down a cop, stole money, betrayed your marital vows, or played a prank on someone that ended with tragedy, why would you want to advertise that? It can’t possibly benefit you or your family. People will get mad, and may want revenge. Whether they send your essay to the cop you proudly thwarted, testify against you in a child support hearing, or take action to have you pay what you took back to society, think twice about writing about it.

Instead: If you’ve done something that shouldn’t be publicized and you are compelled to share it with the world, write it into a novel. You will get points for imagination, even if it is the truth.

Let’s also not confuse revealing, first-person pieces with clickbait. I have noticed that many writers make the mistake of producing humiliating stories that never take their careers anywhere.

The reason that happens is that those clickbait stories—even those written well—shared damning details of something that happened to the writer, but offered no further insight beneath the events. The writer didn’t dig deep.

I’m all for a revealing, first-person piece and have written many of those pieces myself. But those pieces need to do something important: the reader has to relate to the writer and to do that they have to understand the emotional underpinnings of why the writer did what they did, and then some transformation or learning has to take place.

Anecdotes need to have a broader focus. Vivian Gornick’s brilliant book The Situation and the Story references the external—the logistical situation; and the internal, which is the story. The story is the heart, the part that shows the emotional underpinnings which make up the narrative arc of an essay. Without it, the essay is simply a situation, or clickbait.

Bottom line: This is a fraught time and there are people suffering, so please think twice about sending essays into the world that open you up for many legal and emotional ramifications and attacks. There is no smart way to sacrifice your integrity to get that byline.  You may get notoriety—but not for your work. Just for being a jerk.

___________________________

Estelle Erasmus, an award-winning journalist and writing coach, has written for The New York TimesThe Washington Post, The Week, InsiderThe Independent, Parents Magazine and more. She is an adjunct writing professor at NYU and an ongoing guest editor for NarrativelyShe also teaches for Writer’s Digest, writes a column for Forbes and hosts/curates the podcast ASJA Direct: Inside Intel on Getting Published and Paid Well. Estelle can be found giving publishing advice on her website, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

 

The Siren Lure of Travel Writing

February 25, 2020 § 18 Comments

“You travel all the time, why don’t you write about it?”

I get asked that a lot. Last year I spent time in the Netherlands, Italy, Vietnam (twice), China, Cambodia, Thailand, Costa Rica, France and Canada, plus Utah, Arkansas, Oregon, Michigan, Louisiana, New York (city and state), Florida and Pennsylvania; and I am a writer.

Why am I not a travel writer?

Sure, I share my experiences on the Brevity blog, and write travel mini-essays on Instagram, but I don’t write travel articles for mass media or contribute to guidebooks.

I’ve thought about it—in 2015-2016, I explored writing travel full-time, or even part-time, thinking it might help finance some of my trips. I paid a successful travel writer to coach me on pitching articles to newspapers and magazines. I made lists of places to pitch and what story and angle for each. I read airplane magazines and scoured travel websites. I attended the annual New York Times Travel Show on a media badge and collected business cards from every tourism board, tour agency, and PR team representing countries I’d like to visit. (The first day I woke up with total laryngitis and carried an index card reading HELLO I AM ALLISON FROM DUBAI PLEASE TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR COUNTRY/REGION/ORGANIZATION.)

After all that research, I didn’t sell any travel articles. I didn’t even pitch any travel articles. I’d arrive in a new location, realize I was there to work another job, and spend my day off resting, rather than hitting up Six Michigan Wineries You Must Visit or Exploring Tuscany In October. On vacation trips I dutifully photographed dinner plates and took notes at key sites, then got home and realized 1) I didn’t have time to individually pitch 20 publications to hopefully sell two articles, and 2) I needed $1500 in camera equipment, time and photography training.

Travel writing looks easy and glamorous, but competition is vigorous, and the prevalence of influencers sharing pretty pictures in exchange for free trips has further devalued the professional travel writer. It takes talent, skill and hard work to build an Insta-career, but social media further dilutes the market for magazine/newspaper travel readers.

Travel writers mostly fall in three categories:

  • Staff writers are on salary at single media outlets and their destinations are often assigned to them. They write big, splashy pieces, often over 2000 words. Staff photographers take the pictures, or the magazine purchases stock photos or is provided with photos from tourism boards, etc. Staff writers build their resumes with freelance clips and often work in entry-level positions before being assigned the travel beat.
  • Freelancers write for multiple outlets, and are paid per word. Thirty years ago, this was about $1/word. Now, many outlets pay 1-50 cents/word, or $50-200 per article, or even clicks-per-reader (usually a worse deal than upfront pay). Freelancers pitch story ideas and are commissioned to write specific articles. They often take their own photos.
  • Bloggers/influencers are not technically “travel writers.” They market themselves and their lifestyle as it takes place in exotic locations. They are physically attractive or can work their look, and take terrific photos or have an InstaHusband to snap them. Influencers spend as much time understanding algorithms and hashtags, editing photos and learning what their readers click on as they do actually traveling.

All three types go on press trips for new travel locations or experiences, or “fam” trips to familiarize with specific destinations. However, the biggest and most prestigious venues often require that writers pay for everything they get. In fact, the New York Times requires writers to have not received any travel freebies for several years, even if unrelated to the current story. Staff writers get reimbursed. Bloggers take freebies. Freelancers pay travel expenses upfront, then hope to sell enough stories to pay for the trip. At $150 each, that’s a lot of articles to get to Fiji and back. Sure, that travel is a tax deduction…but only if you show profit at the end of the year. The IRS doesn’t allow expenses for “hobbies.”*

Still want to write travel?

  • Read this Curiosity Magazine article, a comprehensive look at travel writing as a profession.
  • Learn to pitch. Read about it, or pay someone to teach you. Non-travel outlets like Narratively, most Op-Ed sections, and Gay Mag also commission essays from pitches. Pitching teaches you how to talk about everything else you write, too.
  • Pick and research one kind of travel. If you’re financially comfortable, go for the luxury spa beat and read a year’s worth of Condé Nast Traveler. If you’re a cheap traveler, read Lonely Planet. If you like quirky-but-sophisticated, read Afar.
  • Take better photos. Learn about angles, lighting, and framing. Get a real camera. Learn Lightroom or Photoshop.
  • Start with FOB. Front-Of-Book are short blurbs about hot new experiences and destinations, found in the first pages of magazines. FOB is easier to write and for newbies to break into.

Like romance novels, self-publishing, and writing an entire book, travel writing is much harder than it looks. But it’s absolutely possible to build a successful travel-writing career, and those skills will serve the rest of your writing, too. Writing travel means looking for the story every day, asking more questions, interacting with more people and trying new experiences—all of which make a better trip, whether or not your vacation becomes a story to sell.

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*Hobby vs business on Schedule C filings is more complicated than that, but that’s the gist. Lmk in comments if you really want to know more about deducting writing expenses and I’ll write another blog about that.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

Get it on the Radio: Pitching

September 6, 2016 § 3 Comments

Star pitcher of the Brevity baseball team. Next week we play Tin House.

Star pitcher of the Brevity baseball team. Next week we play Tin House.

Right now, podcasts are a thing. Podcasts about accused murderers, about science, about old Hollywood. And many, many podcasts about personal stories. Ever listen to This American Life or The Moth and thought, I have a story that would be great for that show?

You probably do.

So what’s the process? How does the story get from your head (or the essay you already wrote) to the airwaves?

First, listen to the show(s) you want to be on. Different programs have very different styles and subject matter, and the story that’s perfect for Risk! is going to be terrible for Radio Ambulante. If a program is broadcast on the radio rather than solely on the internet, they have FCC restrictions on language and content. Some shows have a presentation component, where the first step is showing up at a live show and sharing your story in front of an audience (eek!).

Then think about your story, and whether it’s right for radio. As it happens, most of the points that make a good podcast story are the same things that make a good essay. On their pitch page, This American Life says:

…each of these stories is a story in the most traditional sense: there are characters in some situation, and a conflict. These pitchers are clear about who the characters are and what the conflict is. Also: each of these stories raises some bigger question or issue, some universal thing to think about. That’s also pretty important, and you stand a better chance at getting on the air if you let us know what that is too.

Radio stories are sold with a “pitch.” Instead of sending a whole story, you craft a pitch email–it’s a lot like a query letter–and submit your idea. At Transom, a site with hundreds of resources for radio storytellers and independent producers, Ari Daniel gets even more in-depth with seven tips for successful pitches, including:

Pitching a story about a generic idea — a group of people losing money on their subprime mortgages, say — isn’t nearly as effective as finding one or two people experiencing that issue who can illustrate the broader idea.

…If there’s any reason why the story needs to be aired soon, mention that. This is called a news peg.

…Don’t worry about chasing press releases and embargoed about-to-be published studies. It’s likely that staff journalists will cover these. I like to look for stories that aren’t yet on the news radar. In fact, most of my story ideas emerge out of casual conversations.

If you’re feeling like a total beginner (which is a great place to start) Youth Radio breaks it down for teens, and it sure helped me navigate at the beginning. That page has a great interview with Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich, too.

Snap Judgment even has a handy flowchart to see if you have a story (scroll down on the linked page).

Most of the shows that accept pitches have very specific and detailed guidelines. It may be challenging to structure your story to fit their mold, but it’s not hard to find the instructions. In learning to pitch, I found two things incredibly helpful:

  1. As an exercise, I listened to podcasts I wanted to be on and wrote pitches for the stories I heard on the air. This helped me identify characters, conflict, bigger issue, and see how stories were structured for particular shows.
  2. I downloaded archived sessions from the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Each year their conference includes Getting to Yes: The Art of the Pitch, and listening to people pitch their ideas to radio producers, and the producers picking them apart (kindly) helped me understand what does and doesn’t make a story. After you’ve listened to two or three sessions, you’ll start saying, “No! That’s not a story! But if you came at it from this angle…” before the pitcher even finishes their spiel.

Another great resource on story structure is This American Life’s Radio: An Illustrated Guide. It’s a $2 PDF download, and it’s so useful an approach to “what makes a story,” I think you should get it even if you never want to be on the radio.

On Thursday, I’ll be back here on the Brevity blog to talk about the process of actually presenting and/or taping. Meanwhile, check out some pitch guidelines, and see if one of these shows is the right match for your story.

Snap Judgment

This American Life (it’s a treasure trove including sample pitches that succeeded)

The Moth (with a link to tips for telling live stories)

Radio Ambulante

AIR’s pitching page, with links to many shows and how-to-pitch resources

Happy storytelling!

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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